Celebrating Latino Excellence: A Reflection on Latino Heritage Month and the Extraordinary Contributions of Visionaries

By: Dr. Karen Maldonado, Chief Program and Innovation Officer

As Latinos, we stand on the shoulders of innovators and ancestors who have shaped every aspect of American life, and the world around us. We come from resilient people who built pyramids that have withstood the test of time, who created sophisticated calendars by studying the solar system, who introduced the world to the infectious beats of Cumbia and Reggaeton. And who introduced the world to chocolate—one of my favorite things in life!

I believe it is in the fabric of nuestra gente to create and contribute to the progress we expect to see in the world. Yet our history, contributions, and stories are often minimized or erased from mainstream narratives, leaving a void for future generations of Latinos to see the magnificence and extraordinary culture we embody. 

To that end, this year’s Latino Heritage Month is particularly special for me. At the beginning of 2023, I became the founding Chief Program and Innovation Officer for the first Latino-founded and led national organization dedicated to creating pathways for Latinos in education. As a reminder of why I serve, it’s important to honor and celebrate some of the extraordinary Latinos who have impacted my life, and are shaping the lives of millions of other Latinos.

These visionaries embody values that are core to the mission and culture of Latinos for Education.

Values like “working con ganas,” which for so many of us were learned from our parents and abuelos. My father and mother, Wilfredo and Myrta, lived this value every single day as they worked tirelessly to build a loving household and provide financial resources that led to a solid education for me and my sisters.

When I think about “ganas,” I also think about Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, a Black Puertoriqueña, who is setting world records as an Olympian runner and became the second Puerto Rican to win an Olympic gold medal. The dedication and love she has for the sport – and Puerto Rico – show what happens when you work con ganas.

Another value that is core to Latinos for Education is to “agitate when necessary.” The Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina and the first woman of color to serve on the United States Supreme Court, embodies this value.  From her activism while at Princeton and with Acción Puertorriqueña on behalf of Latino students and faculty, to her perseverance during a grueling Senate confirmation process, Judge Sotomayor stands firm in her beliefs and voices them without trepidation. 

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is another strong leader that embodies one of our core values, “bridging across cultures.” Another fellow Puertoriqueño with African descent, Arturo made it his life calling to curate and show the world the many contributions that Black and Afro-Latinos had made to the world of literature, art and music – traveling the world and building one of the most extensive collections of Black literature and art. Arturo was a well-known figure during the Harlem Renaissance and his work documenting the experiences and contributions of Black Latinos has inspired many activists and scholars to continue lifting up this important work.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the CEO and founder of Latinos for Education, Amanda Fernandez. As the founder, Amanda embarked on a mission to ensure the voice of nuestra comunidad is not only well represented in leadership positions within the education sector, but that our voice is influencing the future of education policy and practice. Seven years later, she and Latinos for Education have touched the lives of hundreds of educators, school leaders and parents who are boldly stepping into leadership roles as strong Latinos rooted in community.  Of equal importance, Amanda created an organization built on values that are emblematic of who we are as Latinos.

These Latinos, and countless others, show that our contributions to the world are abundant and should be elevated beyond Latino Heritage Month. 

As I reflect on what being Latina means to me, I’m reminded of my responsibility to be a model  for others—to keep what excellence looks like for Latinos at the forefront of my work. My journey to see myself as a Latina who has pride in myself and my career as an educator, has not been easy nor linear, but con ganas and a tremendously supportive community, I was able to step into senior level roles, unapologetically Puerto Rican.

As a Latina, I stand tall on Latino shoulders and have been able to accomplish unimaginable things. My message to you, during Latino Heritage Month, and beyond, is to contribute to your local community and this country. Although there are moments that the former won’t appreciate and value you, we at Latinos for Education, celebrate you and will cheer you on every step in your journey to Latino Excellence. 


Karen Maldonado serves as Chief Program and Innovation Officer (CPIO) for Latinos for Education. In this role, she directs and guides the overall vision, strategy, design, and evolution of all program areas nationally—and provides leadership around K-16 partnerships, fundraising, budget-setting, and organizational strategy. Prior to serving as CPIO, Karen was Director of Education Reform for the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico (FOMB). She is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program, Fordham University (MS), City of New York at Hunter College (MA) and the State University of New York at Binghamton University (BA).